19th century musical roots
Kurt Thomas was born in 1904 and was trained as a pianist mainly by the influential Leipzig piano teacher Robert Teichmüller (1863-1939). Teichmuller, having been a student of Carl Reinecke (1824-1910) kind of drags Kurt Thomas with one leg into the 19th century. It is nice to see history being intertwined and connect generations of musicians. Hard lines in history in fact often only serve musicology boxes, seldom help you in understanding evolution in music. Or, in this case, performance practice. In a way, Tecihmüller could be seen as a successor of Ignaz Moscheles, being asked by his good friend Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy to leave his comfortable London seat to help him built the Leipzig new conservatory as a piano teacher. Moscheles would stay, also after the early death of Mendelssohn.
Being a composition student of Arnold Mendelssoh (1855-1933), almost a direct descendant of Felix Mendelssohn, Kurt Thomas had quite some big successes as a composer early on in his career. Still as a youngster, he was considered nationally to be one of the granted talent of the future. But he had a great side as a performer as well. His whole live, he conducted mainly choirs, specialized in choral conducting on which he wrote several books in 1939, still today considered to be must read lecture on the topic.
The Orgelreform and German early 20th century Early Music Revival
We tend to forget today that in the Early Music Revival, Germany had a very dedicated and special approach. Karl Straube, the promiment Reger performer, was also an outstanding organist, who formed a lot of students that would change the course of musical history. People like Günter Ramin, Karl Richter and Helmut Walcha would produce dozens of recordings and built a revival in early music that is seldom seen. Not to forget Albert Schweitzer ! Karl Thomas was deep into this movement as well. I say we tend to forget this these days, since our today’s approach of Early Music Performance might be more based on what Wanda Landowska advocated (the harpsichord) more than what happened in Germany. And in a broader context, a true pioneer of what we today consider to be Historically Informed Performance Practice was launched by the genius Arnold Dolmetsch, from late 19th century onwards. He kind of fought the battle between the clavichord and harpsichord with Landowska. But, as we know today, Landowska won. So the approach of those German pioneers, as brilliant as they played, sometimes seems to be not going far enough in our modern eyes. We tend not to like the Neupert harpsichords Richter plays on, or the rigid movements Walcha takes on the organ. But from a somewhat further distance, those people were magnificent musicians of which many of the recordings can bring us today still a lot of joy.
The Leipzig Thomas Kirche
Going fast forward to after WWII, Thomas was chosen to be the successor of Günter Ramin as Thomas Kantor, after Ramin’s early and unexpeted death in 1956. He accepted the job with enthousiasm and the recording I mentioned is one of the highlights of his short career there. Short, because he became frustrated of the endless negociations with the National Party on allowing him to go on European tour. Finally in 1961, he did not return to what was back then Eastern Germany, and remained the rest of his life in Western Germany. For the youngsters amongst us here, take a moment to look up what terms like the ‘Iron Curtain’ of the ‘Berlin Wall’ means. It is important, trust me.
The Leipzig Thomas choir and Gewandhaus Orchestra played obviously in Ramin’s style that might have been more ‘baroque’ than Straube’s approach, but still not as Thomas wanted them to sound. He change in a remarkable short period their sound and approach, and although one still can here on that 1959 recording a bit of both worlds, the recording sounds very modern, certainly considering the fact it has been recorded almost 60 years ago. in some regards, as the tempo choices, for me, as far as I can tell, this almost 60 years old recording very close, to an ‘Authentic’ Bach, closer perhaps even as some more recent versions of which sometimes it feels as if speeding up is the only thing required to be labeled as really of today.
Anyway… enjoy this wonderful recording!